It will soon be 150 years since we bought “Seward’s Icebox,” as Americans called Alaska in 1867, paying Russia a whopping two cents an acre for this astonishing land of 100,000 glaciers and over 40 mountain ranges. Declared our 49th State in 1959, Alaska is not only our largest state but also our northernmost, westernmost, and easternmost state with the Aleutian chain extending into the Eastern Hemisphere.
One hundred years ago, a “tent city” sprouted along the banks of Ship Creek. It was a temporary “dwelling place” for those creating the railroad. On the bluff above, homes and businesses and time grew into Anchorage, Alaska.
As part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1935, 203 families, escaping the depression and drought, migrated from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan to their provided forty acres to create an agricultural colony in Alaska’s fertile Matanuska Valley. With the short growing season, high costs, and disillusionment, within five years over half were gone. A few of the original log homesteads and small barns remain, and the Palmer Historical Society is restoring at least one farm.
This migration and farming project within forty miles of Anchorage, though not extremely successful, brought exposure to Alaska and helped Anchorage grow, sparking excitement and dreams of exploring this Far North Country. A fun part of this 1935 experience still lingers in Palmer’s Alaska State Fair, where you find the enormous vegetables still grown in the Matanuska Valley.
The military population and World War II changed Anchorage from a small town into a metropolitan city. Both built in 1940-41, Elmendorf Air Force Base and the Army’s Fort Richardson consolidated in 2010 (also incorporating the Kulis Air National Guard) to become the JBER or Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson United States military facility that accommodates over 29,000 people. In 1942, the Alaska Highway through Canada became the military supply line to northern defense headquarters with a link between Anchorage and other parts of the country.
Anchorage and its 300,950 population now cover nearly 2,000 acres, including JBER, outlying communities, and most of Chugach State Park. On a clear day, Mt. McKinley, North America’s tallest mountain at 20,237 feet (official since 2013), can be seen 130 miles north of the city.
The city supports two major airports, Lake Hood Seaplane Base, the world’s busiest and largest floatplane base, and the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport with connections to Europe and Asia. The international airport’s control tower oversees all flights including the 200 floatplane flights per day and the commercial flights from Merrill Field Municipal Airport. Add to that mix the fighter jets zooming out of JBER.
In the 1990s, flocks of waterfowl were making it extremely dangerous for flights in and out of the airport. A Bird Reduction Task Force applied a simple solution. Three farm pigs, Curly, Larry, and Moe, live on the island between the takeoff and taxi lanes. They have eggs for breakfast.
Alaska has the highest number of pilots per capita of any U.S. state, approximately one in every 78 residents. More planes than RVs live in backyards, with aviation being a vital link to its extremely remote areas.
The Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum near Lake Hood offers stories of Alaska’s legendary bush pilots, the first flight out of Fairbanks in 1913, the legendary Carl Ben Eielson who flew the state’s first airmail run in 1924, and the Wiley Post-Will Rogers plane crash at Barrow in 1935. The museum has restored the bush planes of those daring pilots who put their lives on the line to build Alaska, wreckages rescued from ravines, mine tailings, and other obscure places. Their mission is to keep memories alive and record extraordinary exploits, missions of mercy, and sacrifices.
I have to admit, I’m not much on visiting cities but when I first laid eyes on the picturesque, sod-roofed, 4th St. Visitor Center with all of its colorful flowers, I was a goner. It is charming, but now a more modern Visitor Center lounges behind it. They have information, walking tour maps, shuttle and trolley tours, and with no sales tax in Anchorage, a little shopping might be in order.
There is much to see in and around Anchorage with great trails, some paved, for hiking, mountain biking and bicycling; flightseeing tours for observing wildlife, glaciers and volcanoes; and fishing, charter fishing, kayaking, and Segway travel.
The Segway was a really exciting way for me to see the city. We started at six mph, progressing to twelve and lest you falter, keep in mind, if I can do it, you can do it! Our trip included the downtown gardens and flowers, the Alaska Railroad Terminal and the Ulu Factory, the Ship Creek salmon viewing area, and the original Anchorage town site. With a range of 24 miles on a single charge, zero emissions, and energy efficiency equivalent to 450 miles per gallon, are Segways our “wheels of the future?” I suppose it would be difficult to use them for comfortable overnighting.
The Alaska Railroad, built originally to develop the state’s coal resources, now promotes tourism that might take you south to Whittier or Seward or north to Fairbanks, Alaska’s second largest city, with a layover at Denali National Park. The Aurora run that intrigued me mightily but has never met my schedule offers “flag drop service” north of Willow. It is the only U.S. railroad that can still be flagged down from the side of the tracks. It is hard to believe that there are still adventurous souls living so far out in the boonies that they have need to flag down a full-grown train!
Land-locked Juneau is the Alaska state capital but Anchorage is considered the government’s focus, with its military, transportation, communications, trade, service, finance, tourism, and local economy. Surrounded as it is by Cook Inlet, Turnagain Arm, and Knik Arm, Anchorage is a major port city, receiving the bulk of all freight entering Alaska.
The unique early history of the area that goes back 6,000 years can be experienced at the Alaska Native Heritage Center with storytelling, song and dance programs, and the Native Games demonstrations. In the Hall of Cultures, Natives exhibit and demonstrate their crafts. A short walk around Lake Tiulana allows you to visit the various cultures, traditions and artifacts explained by guides, and you can walk inside their authentic life-sized dwellings.
Always with a willingness to try local fare, on the sun-covered deck of the Raven’s Call Café, I enjoyed the great view along with reindeer soup and a musk ox burger (tasted a lot like beef).
The Heritage Center and the Anchorage Museum of History and Art offer a combo ticket with a complimentary shuttle between. If you have an interest in understanding Alaska’s “first people,” these two places are an intriguing way to do it. Having flown to the Bering Sea communities of Barrow, Nome and Kotzebue, it has been my privilege to see some of this history firsthand.
Next month, we’ll go into some of the special activities and memorable disasters of Anchorage. God Bless.
Sharlene Minshall’s first novel, Winter in the Wilderness, in e-book and hard cover and the fourth edition of her RVing Alaska and Canada are available through Amazon.com. Sharlene’s weekly on-line blog can be found at rvlife.com under The Silver Gypsy.